Essay Sunday

The landscape according to Caravaggio

/ 08:45 AM December 29, 2013

They say that Caravaggio painted

As though he were inside a dungeon


Or a room deep within a tavern,

Where the illumination comes


Not from the sun but from a lamp,

Which is unseen and seems embedded

Into the very fact of being —

The women, children, men and horses,

Whose physicality is such

As to invite a curious finger,

Which makes his most reproduced painting,


“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,”

Somewhat a statement of his art.

Well then, what can we say of his

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt,”

In which he chose to yield himself

To do a sort of landscape painting,

Conceding to the sky a role?

That Biblical journey to Egypt

Offered for Caravaggio’s use

The moment when Joseph decided —

After a glance at Mary and Child —

That it was time to take a breather.

I’ve come across the many legends

That grew out of this episode

And Caravaggio must have known

One or two stories of the kind —

For instance, how the Family

Found a spot in a grove of trees,

Which the Child ordered to bend down

And lay their fruit on Joseph’s hand,

Their roots forthwith to yield a spring

For them to drink from and be filled.

Save for the trees, none of these stories

Finds telling in this lovely painting,

Lovely because of its translucence,

No matter if a bit stylized —

A coiffured Mary and the Infant

Sleep with their heads touching each other,

An indication of how long

The journey so far travelled was,

And deep the dreams must be for them,

Speaking of which the wakeful Joseph,

Here shown as usual, an old man,

Has never run out of — in dreams

God spoke to him, and through an angel,

Such as the one that we see here —

Young, winged, draped in linen,

Which functions but as a fig leaf —

And this, the presence of the angel,

Playing a vintage violin

As Joseph holds up before him

Sheet music from the Song of Songs,

Hints at this being a dream, too,

Or an interpretation of

Something that has already happened,

Which, whether old or new, all art,

If it be true, is all about,

And in this work of Caravaggio’s

All else is past — except the sky,

Odd for someone like Caravaggio,

An artist who made use of darkness,

Which here he had at last to part

To show a glow out of the gloom,

A sky that came to light towards

The morning of the Resurrection.

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